October 20, 2013

Character vs. Performance: What is Your Focus as a Director?

Scorsese directingIf you're a director, you're responsible for so much that goes on (or should be going on) on and off set, but your one primary role is to connect with, lead, and direct actors. There are many different ways to do this, but Mark W. Travis, considered one of the world's leading authorities on film directing, has shared some thoughts on the difference between directing with a focus on character versus performance, and weighs in on his opinion on the "right" approach to coaching actors -- one that will encourage and guide them toward performing to their full potential.

Travis has done quite a bit throughout his 40-year directorial career. He has served as the creative consultant on many independent films, and has written books on directing, including L.A. Times #1 bestseller The Director's JourneyAs a project, Travis has been sitting in on several acting teachers' classes to observe their teaching styles, and has learned that actors who don't perform well because of anxiety or tension all have a common thread -- their director. He shares his findings in an article for The Wrap.

He says that the directors most common "first lines" after an actors performance are usually:

  • “What were you working on?”
  • “What do you want in this scene?”
  • “How do you think it went and what do you think is missing?”
  • “What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

Travis says that these are good questions to ask an actor, but also points out that some may not be as effective as others. He mentions being at a workshop where the director consistently asked the actors "What were you working on?" Travis says that this question turns the focus on the "success" of the actor's performance -- how well they created emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. Actors' responses to the question were along the lines of, "I was working on my character’s anger."

sofia_coppola

Alternately, at a different workshop, the director consistently asked the actors, "What do you want in this scene?" According to Travis, this shifts the focus away from the actor's performance and toward the character itself, allowing the actor to discover the character more, evident in responses like, "I want to convince her that I can be trusted."

The two responses from actors reveal from where the actors were operating and/or focusing on: their performance ("I was working on my character's anger,") or the character ("I want to convince her that I can be trusted.") Travis brings up a great point about what an actor's objective should be:

Is the actor’s objective to successfully accomplish all the “acting tasks and goals” in order to deliver a “successful” scene? Or, could an actor’s goal be to allow the character to exist so profoundly and fully that the “acting” techniques actually become invisible – disappear? And if they are invisible, then how can we comment on them?

Wes AndersonTravis also brings up a very important point that should be pretty obvious to most -- direct with positive reinforcement instead of negativity. He talks about going to a workshop where he felt a strange anxiety and tension in the air. He realized that it was coming from the actors' nervousness to perform, because 100% of the time after an actor would perform a scene, the director would go on about how they performed the scene "wrong."

There isn't really a right or wrong way to perform a scene. Actors work hard to understand, get to know, and become a character; it's not just memorizing lines. Travis shares this poignant observation:

To have worked on a scene for hours, or days, or even weeks and then be told in one quick statement that the foundation upon which you based all your choices was “wrong” must be devastating.

There are many different styles of directing that produce successful results and happy collaboration, but I think it's safe to say that having a positive attitude and a collaborative mindset helps the actors, the characters, and the overall film (not to mention the experience.)

Check out the whole article here. There's a lot more that Travis shares that can help learn more about directing actors.

What's your directorial approach? Do you agree with Travis' observations, that focusing on character rather than performance is a better method? Any actors want to weigh in?

Link: Directing Directors on the ‘Right’ Approach to Coaching Actors -- The Wrap

Your Comment

31 Comments

Just go to acting classes, duh.

October 20, 2013 at 9:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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October 20, 2013 at 11:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

"World's leading authorities on film directing"- that sounds like a scholarly statement. Filmmaking is an ART, we should remember that at all times

October 20, 2013 at 11:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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thadon calico

As an actor who directs, I think these are useful but obvious observations. I admit I haven't read the rest of his article, so maybe he goes into more depth. But my experience in film & tv says that most of this stuff is irrelevant. Budgets don't seem to be heading up any faster than gas prices are heading down. This means production schedules don't generally afford this kind of meandering artistic exploration. Asking questions that are meaningful take a lot of time to answer. And once the crew and cast and cameras are together. There's no time for that kind of communication. The key to directing is casting actors who "get it".

The immense differences between an acting class (on-camera workshop for example) and acting in a real world production make the comparison irrelevant to a director (or an actor in my opinion). Maybe I need to read the whole article to fully appreciate what he's offering. Maybe he explains it better.

October 21, 2013 at 2:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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I have to agree with you. The time for this type of process is in rehearsal (if at all) because once you're on set there's just no time to for these kinds of exercises. I've taken acting classes before, and while it helped me sympathize with an actors journey in prepping a performance I soon realized that all that work has to be done BEFORE you get to set. A Director is not an acting coach.

October 25, 2013 at 12:46AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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John K.

"One of the world's leading authorities on film directing".

Yeah, right, that's why no-one's heard of him or the projects he's worked on. If you want to learn about directing, listen to the great directors like Scorcese, he's very generous with sharing his knowledge.

October 21, 2013 at 2:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Matt

Yeah, this seems to be a recurring trend in Film, just look at books on screenwriting, none of the people who write them have ever written anything else worth while, i.e Save The Cat/Blank Cheque.

October 21, 2013 at 8:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Bob

Mark Travis is very well known in LA.
He has directed one studio feature and some
sitcoms. But has a degree in drama from Yale
I think and he is known mostly for getting people
to do one-man shows based on their life or family
stories. A Bronx Tale came out of his workshops.
If you guys stick around in the film world you will
wind up crossing paths with him. He is a
great teacher and communicator whereas
a famous director will not be.

October 21, 2013 at 7:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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sammy

Scorcese ! did mistake

In HUGO ! it's how English people see the French people from there point of view.

It's not because you dress British like French they will do French people they just pretend.

The film was good except they do not act and move like French and some actor find a way to dress like
English way with French dress, this made this film really strange. For me it's was bad directing on that point.
At the video club ( here in Quebec ) people how rent it find this funny because this of this aspect or find the film strange because something do not work in this film.

So Great director could made mistake, they work to much on the actor character and forget to do what could be believable for represent a French man.

October 25, 2013 at 12:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Pierre Samuel Rioux

I'd say 99% of people reading this blog only focus on the visuals, then remember they have bothersome actors to tell where to stand.

That's kind of what I pick up from the comments over the years!

October 21, 2013 at 2:35AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Fresno Bob

Well, film is a visual medium. Greats like Kubrick and Kurosawa have basically said movies are made in the visuals/editing. Doesn't mean performances aren't very important (cause they are) but SO MUCH of the perception of actor's performances ends up being lens choice, color correcting, music cues, camera movements, ect... that you HAVE to have a grasp on it all. If one REALLY wants to just focus on actors and performances... that would be live-theater, not film.

October 21, 2013 at 7:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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bwhitz

I agree with focusing on the character. And that's exactly what I do, bringing positivity to the set is a no brainer. Being able to communicate clearly and get your point across as well as in a great mood will only get you great performances. I always focus on characters as they are the heart of any story. It's not always about concept like Scorsese says.

October 21, 2013 at 2:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Brad Watts

"But your one primary role is to connect with, lead, and direct actors." This is an important thing, let me get this out first. But if you are a professional, there has to be on one side time for the visuals (in correspondence with the design, prop, cistume camera and occasionally VFX departments) and for sound and on the other for the actors. Your primary job is not just dealing with the actors, your primary job is to tell the story. You can have a heck of influence on the final output when you learn about how to work with actors most effectively but some actors need more guidance and some need less. Most of the time, a lot of work is done in preproduction, since on set time is running fast. So for every department as for the acting, decisions are made beforehand as good as possible. You achieve that by doing table readings with the actors and being generally in close exchange with the several departments. On professional productions your AD will in parts take the role off communicating with these departments whilst you are, for example, out with him, your location scout, the DOP, the PM and the location manager finding locations and/or doing visual breakdowns on those found locations with the AD and DOP.
I've seen a lot of former actors/theater directors who took film directing serious but were instantly struggling with the new extra responsibilities they have on film on their first gig, because their focus naturally was on instructing the actors. And I have seen some actors/directors giving a damn about the other departments and the overall result thus being far from impressive. The nice and tiresome part in directing is having an open ear for everybody.

October 21, 2013 at 2:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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MattN.

I remember Selma Diamond on some talk show in the early-80's (may have been Merv) offering a story about a secretary/desk clerk playing extra (with no lines, IIRC) who asked the director the infamous, "What's my motivation?' question. In reply, the director is alleged to have said, "You're a (bleeping) extra. Just pick up the (bleeping) phone when it rings".
.
Of course, "motivation" is an essential actor's tool in the Stanislavsky / Strasberg Method and, if a director got a more known actor from the same school (Brando, Pacino or De Niro), he'd have to work with them. I recall a Soviet film from the 1970's with the several "door bell ringing" shots. All the actors did the bell ringing differently depending upon the required situation. There was a giddy ring of an eager boyfriend coming to see his gal; a hesitant call of a stranger asking for a favor, an indifferent call of a drunk, etc.

October 21, 2013 at 3:37AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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DLD

Actors are mostly children so most of the time will spent playing amateur psychologist manipulating them into performances they fear.

October 21, 2013 at 4:47AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dan

I think one has to distinguish between acting class/workshop and acting for an actual performance. Perhaps these questions are good in acting class, but when making a film I have never interrogated an actor after a scene. That seems passive-aggressive and annoying. Actually, I don't find there is much correlation between what an actor is able to say about a character or performance when he or she is out of character and how he or she actually performs the role.

October 21, 2013 at 7:53AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Tom

First of all, fuck you, Dan. I am not a child, I'm an actor. I don't need you or anyone else to play mind games with me. Treat me like an artist, not like a goddamn science experiment.

A trained actor can give you what you want, if you tell them what you want explicitly. Vague direction like, "How did that go for you?" or "What do you think is missing from the scene?" is useless to me, and makes me feel like you don't know what you are doing, because you have no clear vision for the scene. Give me one or two solid notes like, "On this line I want you to interrogate her", and then let me do another take. Don't give me five hundred vague notes, don't tell me some long-winded metaphorical story, and DEFINITELY don't try and play therapist with me, because I will walk off your set.

October 21, 2013 at 8:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gavin

While I agree with you to a degree, is it irony or coincidence that you object to being treated like a child yet threaten to storm off the set?

October 21, 2013 at 6:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Mike

haha. Touche. Children, more than anyone, hate being called children.

October 21, 2013 at 7:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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bwhitz

I have spent several years working in this industry. I have seen deeply problematic behavior on the part of directors, producers, actors, and a variety of people. The attitude towards actors often seems to me to be an attitude reflective of individuals who haven't taken the time to study the craft of directing actors. It is very easy to condemn individuals who you struggle to understand. I write from the perspective of a director who loves working with talented actors while also loving camera movement, lenses, framing, and tools of visual storytelling. The problem from my perspective is that it takes a hell of a lot of time to learn both and then to unify that knowledge to create something compelling to a broader audience. And many filmmakers get in a rush to make their films so they develop some conscious or unconscious disdain for the part that haven't developed within themselves.

October 22, 2013 at 3:41AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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John

How would you react to someone trying to mindfuck or abuse you? No job is worth that. I should probably clarify. I would walk off your set, then call my agent and my union and register a complaint. All I'm saying is, treat me like a professional, and I will treat you like a professional. I don't think it's childish to walk away from abuse, I think it's psychologically healthy.

October 22, 2013 at 10:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gavin

To my point, here is what Jenna Fischer (who plays Pam on The Office) said about it predatory directors:

"Yes, you will meet some scumbags if you move to LA. People that prey on newcomers. I can tell you with absolute certainty that those people have NO POWER in the grand scheme of things. For example, it was my first year in town and I was part of a theater group. At a party for a new play opening the playwright came up to me and asked me if I was an actress. I said yes. He asked if I was interested in doing a part in his new movie. I was kind of floored. How did he know I was any good? I said, “What is it about?” And he said, “Well, you’d have to do a raunchy sex scene with nudity. Would that bother you?” I laughed and said, “I wouldn’t do anything I wouldn’t be proud to show my parents.” He then said, “That was a test. You aren’t a real actress. A real actress would never say that. A real actress would piss herself onstage if the part called for it. You aren’t going to make it in this town. You should just go home.” And then he walked away. I went back to my apartment and cried. Why was Shem Bitterman (that is his real name) such a d**k? I have no idea. Stuff like that will happen to you if you decide to become an actor. People will roll their eyes when you tell them what you do. You have to develop a thick skin – without becoming jaded, guarded or cynical. That’s a tall order. I’ll say now what I wish I had said then, “Shem, sir, with all due respect, you are a f**kface and you can kiss my a**.”"

Why do people feel they can treat actors this way?

October 22, 2013 at 10:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gavin

I'm with Gavin on this one. Working with dedicated, talented actors is a director's dream come true. We're all artists working in this collaborative form, and the first and most important aspect is respect for each other.
Attitudes like that expressed in Dan's post are unfortunate, but will likely be self-eliminating. I for one only work with people I enjoy working with - attitudes can be checked at the door on my projects!

October 21, 2013 at 9:34AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Couldn't agree more, Robert.

October 22, 2013 at 9:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

For me, acting and directing are about two things.

1. The director needs to tell the actor what he wants. If he can't tell them, then he needs to SHOW them.
2. The actor needs to give the director what he wants.

How the director goes about telling the actor and how the actor goes about giving it are where the different styles of acting and directing come in. I like to be direct and just say, "This is what this character does. This is what he's feeling as he does it." If they're having problems, I work with them to figure out a solution. If we can't figure one out on time, we move on and work with what we got.

October 21, 2013 at 12:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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David

Faster, more intense.

October 21, 2013 at 4:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Pete

Great advice from director Dan Mirvish on directing actors in his latest feature ... I'm not Dan BTW I'm his cousin...

http://filmmakermagazine.com/76767-13-steps-to-directing-famous-actors-i...

October 22, 2013 at 12:30PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dan

This is really great advice, and nowhere in here do I see anything about actors being children that you must manipulate. You should take your cousin's advice, Dan.

October 22, 2013 at 5:41PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Gavin

This year i assist to a Storytelling with actors from Play or Film i do this once a Mont a full day.
It's not a regular actor class it's a coaching actor way with all ready actor.

I go there because i do documentaries and when i do interview in a certain way i need to direct them with out they notice it. And this is sometime hard. And must of the time i am working those interview in cinema verity style with no actor it's just harder.At the first contact i find actor very very sensitive, what i find out it's the good way to directing it's find what work for this particular moment in your story... if it's not working you try an other way until you get it but actor have a lot to offer...

October 25, 2013 at 1:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Pierre Samuel Rioux

価格 バッグ

October 26, 2013 at 3:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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If you're dissing actors, show us your work. Put your neck out there and let others critique your performance like actors do every day. It would be interesting to see the films of directors who have no respect for actors. Just Sayin.

I believe in story, and if you don't have believable performances, that are in-line with the scenes controlling point of view, your story will suffer. If a director doesn't understand and respect the craft they can't hope to guide an actor into authentic nuances.

How I Stopped Making Soulless Films
http://digitalfilmfarmworkshops.com/?p=5318

December 17, 2013 at 1:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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